Unclenching the Body: A Conversation with Jennifer Pastiloff

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Jennifer Pastiloff is asleep in my bed. She couldn’t get into her Airbnb until after 4 p.m., but she’d traveled to Portland with her mom and toddler. I left her a key to my house so she could have a place to crash before our interview. I arrived home to Jen’s mom and son playing in my living room, and Jen in my room getting some rest. Once she woke up, I offered her a wearable sleeping bag, donned one of my own, and we settled into my chilly basement to talk about her first book, On Being Human.

I first met Jen at a retreat she led with Lidia Yuknavitch in 2015. I had no idea that weekend would change my life, but I know now that many people have this experience after her workshops. Unlike so many other empowerment coaches, Jen comes from a place of humility. Her book does the same, refusing to preach solutions and delving deeply into her mistakes, her triumphs, and her challenges.

Jen Pastiloff travels the world with her unique workshop “On Being Human,” a hybrid of yoga-related movement, writing, sharing out loud, letting the snot fly, and the occasional dance party. Jen has been featured on Good Morning America, New York Magazine, Health Magazine, CBS News and more, for her unique style of teaching, which she has now shared with thousands of women in sold-out workshops all over the world. She is also the founder of the online magazine The Manifest-Station.

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The Rumpus: So I assume you imagined writing a book before you did write one. What did you imagine that book would be?

Jennifer Pastiloff: This.

Rumpus: This was the book you imagined?

Pastiloff: Yes. Actually, can I hold her? I like talismans. This was my father’s watch. I just started wearing it. My sister’s had it all these years and I asked her if I could have it during this period during book tour. I like to have—

Rumpus: Things to hold on to. We have an entire closet full of stuffed animals over there.

Pastiloff: That would be brilliant. And we’re wearing sleeping bags.

Rumpus: Um, yes we are. What do you wish that people understood about hearing loss?

Pastiloff: Well, one, I’m not completely deaf. There’s a difference between deaf culture with a capital D and small d deaf like I am, which is profound hearing loss. I want people to understand that I’m not stupid. I mean, no one comes out and says it but I can tell, and it’s so painfully exhausting to have to explain yourself all the time. I always joke that I wish I wore a sign about it and recently I was like, maybe I will get something. A little necklace that says: I can’t hear. And I’m still a really great listener, so treat me with care, you know, like don’t cover your mouth and don’t talk to me from the other room, but don’t treat me or anyone with a disability as if we’re not whole in some way.

Rumpus: “Not whole” is a great way of putting it. You have that line in your book about the moon not missing anything.

Pastiloff: It’s actually from a poem I wrote, a long time ago. “The moon is never missing any of itself.” And we’re the same. The irony is I called myself broken. I called myself bad; I called my ears bad. I think it’s common, especially for women, to say that to ourselves. But it is not the truth.

Rumpus: And it’s hard to stop doing it to yourself if other people are going to continue to do it to you. It’s reinforcement of a thing you’re trying to leave behind. I know you also struggle with depression. How do you pick yourself up when you’re sinking into that state?

Pastiloff: I had a moment just now where I floated away, thinking: should I be really honest, or…?

Rumpus: Yes. You should be totally honest.

Pastiloff: Lately I’ve been dipping really bad. I’m not right now. Right now I feel great. But even though I know better, I don’t always do better. You know, I know that sometimes drinking that third glass of wine will give me a headache and I do it anyway. I know that getting in bed all day doesn’t necessarily make me feel better and I do it anyway. The way I picked myself up is reaching out. I’m really good at that reaching out, but sometimes, it’s like you still feel flat or like shit. The one thing I know that helps at least in a small way is exercise.

Moving my body, and particularly with the weights, feeling strong. Having been so sick with an eating disorder, I wanted everyone to tell me I looked sick. If people said, God forbid, “You look healthy,” then gosh, I’d want to die. And so now when people say I look strong, I am so complimented. Exercise doesn’t magically make depression go away, but it doesn’t feel like it’s so locked in me.

But there’s a lot of shame around talking about depression, especially because of what I do and who I am. Although I think I’ve gotten really good at branding the whole real motherfucking life. So I don’t feel like I’m necessarily trying to make it seem like, oh, Jen is this positive guru, or anything. But still, it is much easier to talk about something when you’re out of it. So I can post on Instagram or write an essay saying, “Recently I was going through a really bad depression,” but I wouldn’t say, “I’m in it right now.”

Rumpus: That’s a bit more vulnerable. I’m curious, what was your publishing process like?

Pastiloff: The book proposal was by far the hardest part for me. There’s something that makes me panic about having to distill or get organized with my thoughts. I was constantly writing, but I didn’t know what it was. The writing process itself was about compiling so much that I’d already written. It was like working a puzzle. But really, the hardest part for me was the proposal.

With that kind of thing, I can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s a complete anxiety attack. I’ll just keep repeating to myself like a mantra: I can’t do this. I don’t know how, I don’t know how, I don’t know how. Which is a bullshit story because I do know how.

It’s funny because if you said, “Jen, someone backed out of this thing tonight and there’s twenty thousand people in the audience. We need you to speak on stage.” I’d be like: “I’m on it.” But if you say, “Here’s seven million dollars for a new book. All you need to do is tell us what it’s going to be about in two weeks.” [Laughs] I can’t do it! I think it’s the stories we make up about ourselves and my story is that I’m messy, I’m chaotic.

Rumpus: You write about when you were finding yoga: “I didn’t know then during that first yoga teacher training that I would eventually find a way to weave it all together. But the vulnerability I experienced from doing the yoga opened something impenetrable in my chest, found its way to my heart and also my ears, which perhaps was always the same thing.” Here we have the heart, the ears, the body. How do you access or write through all of that?

Pastiloff: I mean, this is why Lidia and I do this work that we do together so well and this is why I do the work I do, and why it resonates so much with yoga. Because from that early age when my dad died, I just locked everything into my body.

You know, and I sort of joke, but I’m not really joking, I clenched when I was eight and I’m just unclenching now. I wear a night guard that I bite through because that was this learned coping mechanism of locking everything in my body. You know how Lidia always says the body has a point of view? When I started moving, literally and metaphorically, all this long stored pain and grief and beliefs about myself started to move around. I’ve had to get in close, and when I say that, I mean I literally have to get in close to people’s faces in my workshops. I pick everything up. Even heat off the body. But before I started getting in really close and lip reading, I had to find ways to get by in the world. So I learned to be deeply intuitive with my body.

When I found yoga and I started to go into pigeon pose, I would cry. It doesn’t happen so much anymore because Prozac! But I thought: what the hell is this? Why am I emotional? It’s happened to me in the past when I’ve gotten a massage, when someone’s worked on my feet. You know, there’s stuff stored in our body and I’m convinced of that. Yoga was the first time that I discovered that.

Rumpus: When I think of your story, you spent so much time clenching and holding and really punishing your body, by not eating, over-exercising, and pushing your physical form.

Pastiloff: Frying my skin. I didn’t write that much about it but honestly, I constantly had blisters. There was nothing about myself that I didn’t hate. Everything was punishing.

In the beginning, yoga just replaced my over-exercising. I had injuries. So I was doing yoga seven days a week. Then, I softened. Now, I’m lucky if I do it once a year. I was always yoga-ish. If I had chosen yoga and really decided to go for it, I don’t know that I would’ve survived. And I’m afraid I would have fallen into the perfect body trap.

Rumpus: It’s such a trap. How do you think motherhood has changed you? I remember you on both sides of it. I definitely feel like you’re different, but I wonder if you think you’re different.

Pastiloff: Someone asked me that the other day, too, and I was like, how has it not changed me?

I’m a lot more present now. I take myself less seriously. I love No Bullshit Motherhood, this shared community I’ve created where we normalize motherhood. I don’t really get caught up in thinking: Oh, I’m doing it wrong.

I’ve gotten better at saying no, and being more protective with my time. And even though I still go through these bouts of depression, I’m more joyful. Having a kid, as you know, at least a small child, brings so much joy. And then of course there’s this tiny bit of grief. There’s the Jewish part of me that’s already mourning. Thinking: Oh, this is going to be over. But my husband and I have more joy in our tiny house than we did before. It’s made me more tired. No, I’ve always been tired. I’m curious what you think now.

Rumpus: About you? Well, I had met you right before you ended up getting pregnant. I met you at a retreat. So you were doing the “Jen Pastiloff, the retreat leader” Jen. But I feel like after you had Charlie you were even more present. Less ego? More free?

Pastiloff: Right, way more open. There’s something about lived experience. Every year I give less fucks. Also, I was so vocal about how hard it is. And then I saw the way that people responded like they’d been waiting for someone to tell the truth about motherhood their whole life. I just was like, oh, this is how it is: My tits are leaking, my vagina hurts, I’m not sleeping. This sucks. I wasn’t in love with my baby right away. You know, all these things that I don’t think a lot of people talk about. So it did free me up.

Rumpus: There’s something about that first year and a half maybe when they’re so little and they need everything from you and you can’t fucking do it. It’s so humbling. It would bring anyone to their knees. Let’s talk about your mom for a sec. Since she’s upstairs.

Pastiloff: Let’s talk really loud so she can hear it.

Rumpus: Has your mom read the book? I’m curious about her response.

Pastiloff: Interesting you ask. My mom read it. She was upset at first. She was like, “Can you change this part?” And then she called back when she finished the book. She said, “Actually, no, don’t change a thing. I was being silly.” I just told the truth. I don’t know. It’s so hard when you write about people you love. I wrote about the abuse my mom suffered and I left a bunch out by her request. Everything made sense in hindsight. No, when I was eight it didn’t, of course not.

But my mom is so proud. And also, you know, in the acknowledgments, I really thank her for being mother and father.

Everybody in life has tough choices and hopefully does the best they can.

Rumpus: I grew up hearing my mom say that. Her mother had done the best she knew how to do at the time. I just took it at face value because it was the thing my mom was saying. But I reconsidered that a lot, especially being a mom. I don’t necessarily get up every day and do the best I can do. I actually sometimes don’t do the best I can do. I could do better!

Pastiloff: Brené Brown talks about that and I’m like, what? Wait. Sometimes I don’t do the best I can do.

Rumpus: I sometimes don’t. I mean maybe if you’re going to get meta, then “not the best” is the best I can do.

Pastiloff: That’s what I was just going to say. I was listening to the Brené audiobook, and I’m like wait, pause. No, some days I’m not doing the best I can do. And then I was like, wait, pause, pause. Because maybe it is! Who’s to say? Who’s the one judging?

Rumpus: Exactly.

Pastiloff: Did your butthole clench when you were reading the book, like, oh my God, what’s her mom gonna think when she reads this?

Rumpus: No, not at all. I think everyone that writes about a parent, we all struggle with that vulnerability of, kind of, taking on our gods.

Pastiloff: It keeps me up at night. Not so much with my mom because now she’s read it. But I wake up at night like, “Oh my God, what did I say this about this person, and what if they take offense? What if they sue me?” I changed Randall’s name in the book. And I think, he’s not going to read it. He wouldn’t even read my poems!

Rumpus: Asshole. What were you doing with that guy? Seriously. That guy sucked.

Pastiloff: It just took a long time. It took a couple more years.

Rumpus: I mean, that guy sucked. But Jen Pastiloff, you’re amazing.

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Photograph of Jennifer Pastiloff by T. Chick McClure.


Marissa Korbel's writing has appeared in many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch, and The Manifest-Station. She works as a public interest attorney supporting campus and minor sexual assault survivors. Marissa lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler. More from this author →